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Jalal Mansur Nuriddin of The Last Poets has died

US poet, musician, political revolutionary and grandfather of rap died on 4 June aged 73

Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1944, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin – once known as Alafia Pudim and also Lightnin’ Rod – was a member of proto-rap outfit The Last Poets, as well as a devout Muslim and acupuncturist. “The Last Poets didn’t invent rap for it to become a commercial art form, but as a political necessity, in order to articulate our political, revolutionary and evolutionary agenda,” he told Rahma Khazam in The Wire 124. His incendiary lyrics were an influence to scores of musicians including Chuck D, Miles Davis and Tupac Shakur.

He joined New York group The Last Poets, which at that point included Gylan Kain, Felipe Luciano and Abiodun Oyewole, in the late 1960s. He left before that edition of the group released any recordings, but shortly thereafter regrouped with Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan under the Last Poets name once again. Members of the previous incarnation including Luciano and Kain would later release music under the name The Original Last Poets.

Nuriddin, Bin Hassan and Oyewole had first met in prison, and on release joined forces with Suleiman El-Hadi as part of a writer's workshop in Harlem. The group preached revolution in spiels they performed on the corner of 125th Street and Lennox Avenue, and it was there that Alan Douglas – the US producer notorious for his work on Jimi Hendrix’s posthumous recording legacy, and whose Douglas label released discs by Eric Dolphy, Malcolm X and John McLaughlin, among many others – approached them.

As Nuriddin explained to Charles de Ledesma in The Wire 11, the group articulated social, political and economical pressures of American life in a way that had rarely been heard before. “The American Dream said each individual could make it but it didn't apply to black people,” he said. “We'd believed that we could accomplish something by working through the system, but, in the streets, the people were angry because they felt they had been lied to and short-changed. They had no power, the government controlled their lives and lifestyles by perpetuating racism and making sure that the people vented their frustrations on each other whilst other cats were getting the buck.” The name The Last Poets, Nuriddin said, came from a poem written by a South African emigrant Willy Okanside. “He had written in his poem that this was the last age of poems and essays and that guns would take the place of poems. Therefore we were the last poets of this age meaning that this is the last chance for dialogue; after that, we can't talk to each other no more, then we all start fighting.”

With Bin Hassan, Oyewole and percussionist Nilaja, they released their debut album The Last Poets in 1969, selling over a million copies largely by word of mouth. Oyewole didn’t appear on their second release Madness, and Suleiman El-Hadi replaced Hassan on the album Chastisement in 1972. This became the album that introduced the style described by Nuriddin as “jazzoetry”.

Under the name Lightnin' Rod, Nuriddin released the influential 1973 album Hustlers Convention, featuring, among others, Kool & The Gang and Julius Hemphill. Mike Barnes played the track "Sport" to Ice-T as part of an Invisible Jukebox in The Wire 149, which the MC rapped along to by heart, describing it “as the first gangsta rap album". According to the UK poet and writer Abdul Malik Al Nasir two follow-up releases, The Hustlers Detention and The Hustlers Ascension, which together form an autobiographical poem, have been written but are currently unpublished.

Around this time, The Last Poets shared concert bills with Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin, even as their politically charged and revolutionary lyrics began to draw attention. They were monitored by COINTELPRO, a counter intelligence programme operated under President Nixon's administration. Gig organisers were discouraged from booking them, and their records became hard to find.

“The street smart art form variously described as jazzoetry and spoagraphics/biographics (the art of spoken pictures) associated the traditional African instrument, the drum, and the African method of playing it, with the ghettoised voice of the contemporary urban black,” wrote Rahma Khazam. “Along with fellow Afro-Americans in the Nation Of Islam and The Black Panthers, they were rejecting Western society and connecting instead with what they perceived as their African roots.” Nurridin added: “We've been regurgitated from the belly because we're unpalatable, which means articulate.”

In 1984 members of The Last Poets returned with Oh My People, produced by Bill Laswell and released by the Celluloid label, and 1988’s Freedom Express. Other configurations of musicians were using the Last Poets name around the same time, while Nuriddin operated various solo projects; he worked with Adrian Sherwood in the early 1990s, released the single “Mankind”, and spent several years living in Paris, Liverpool, Bristol and London. He was the subject of an Epiphanies column (which can be read via Exact Editions) in The Wire 186 back in 1999, where Christoph Cox recalled his years of friendship and acupuncture sessions with him.

Jalal Mansur Nuriddin died on 4 June, reportedly of cancer.